Sometimes Christians confuse numbers for health and/or strength. In other words, we often make the assumption that because we have a “large” church we have a strong healthy church. That’s not necessarily true. It could easily mean that two or three generations ago that church was healthy and grew to a point that years later we are able to live off the fruit of the labors of those who came before us. It’s sort of like a trust-fund baby. Just because they have money doesn’t necessarily mean they are still making money nor have healthy finances. Usually they look and act a lot better off than they actually are. Sometimes it takes a while for the money to run out.
Similarly, just because there are many churches in an area doesn’t mean the Church is necessarily strong and healthy. There are areas throughout the “Bible Belt” where there are large clusters of churches. Take for example the areas in and around Florence and Jasper, Alabama (I just happen to be familiar with these two areas). There are A LOT of churches in these two areas. But the plurality of churches there has nothing to do with the health and strength of the Church there. What it does indicate is that at some point in history there was a lot of spiritual strength and growth in the area. And because these were rural areas at that time, there were many people who did not drive. This created a need for more churches. So instead of having fewer churches that were larger, there were a greater number of smaller churches (which made it more likely to have a church in walking distance for you). Now, since there seems to be a church on “every corner”, or literally in every small community, we assume that the Church in that area is strong and healthy.
A closer look sometimes reveals that some of these churches have been dying a slow death over the past two or three generations. Most of these dying churches have a disproportionate number of grey-headed folks – which almost ensures that the death will continue. Where there are “younger” Christians present, it is usually the family members of the grey-headed who have been raised well and are faithful Christians. The problem is that far too many of these churches have not consistently made new disciples for at least two generations. For example, (at my last count a year ago) in the Jasper area there are something in the neighborhood 40 churches. For a county of only 65,000 that seems like a strong and healthy situation for the Church. For comparison, the county I live in, Adams County, IL (population of 67,000) has two. However, what we don’t see on the outside is that with the exception of one, every single one of those forty or so churches is numerically smaller today than it was ten and twenty years ago. Out of all of them, there is only church that is “growing” larger. Where are the people going? Some are dying. Others have moved away have not been replaced. And many others have left the Church.
It’s similar to a Major League Baseball team. For every major league team there is a “farm system” that includes at least six or seven teams that are developing young players. Those young players are being developed and groomed to play in the Big Leagues. When someone on the big league team gets hurt or retires or leaves the team they can just grab a player from their farm system. This works great as long as you are constantly replenishing the farm system by drafting new players who you can develop. The problem with many churches in some of these areas is that they haven’t drafted well or often enough. So even though the numbers are still there, as the Christians leave to claim their reward or are won over by Satan, there are no new Christians to continue the work. And as a result the Church dies a slow death.
How can something that is slowly dying off possibly be considered healthy and strong? Making this determination means we’re either dumb, too ashamed to face the reality and do something about it, don’t care enough to face the reality and do something about it, or too arrogant and self-righteous to see the problem.